Long before Augusta commissioners debated the merits of privatizing city services such as public transit and golf course management, the city was relying on private industry to manage another aspect of government — managing and monitoring criminal offenders.
The city’s 15-year-old relationship with Sentinel Offender Services LLC will be put to the test Tuesday, however, when Chief Richmond County State Court Judge Richard Slaby asks the commission to approve renewing Sentinel’s contract for another year.
While they’ve agreed in previous years to extend the relationship, some commissioners have questioned whether the private, for-profit probation firm works in the city’s best interest.
“There are 10 pending lawsuits involving Sentinel,” said Commissioner Donnie Smith, a lieutenant with the Georgia State Patrol. “I don’t have any confidence in the Sentinel leadership. I am for sending (the probation contract) out for bids.”
The suits allege Sentinel unlawfully had probationers jailed – some for extended periods – for nonpayment of fees they can’t afford, such as an $80 startup monitoring fee, $6 daily monitoring fee or $12 daily fee for alcohol monitoring. The firm operated for several years in Augusta Superior Court without a contract as required by state law, and last year withdrew from servicing probationers sentenced in superior court in Richmond and Columbia counties.
Commissioner Joe Jackson, who initially expressed skepticism about Sentinel continuing in Richmond County State Court, said Friday the matter was forcing him to choose which judges to believe.
“Who do I trust – do I trust state court or superior court?” Jackson said.
Slaby said all four state court judges want to retain Sentinel. State court has close ties with the firm. Longtime Sentinel Augusta-area manager, Crystal Page, has worked for the city as coordinator over state court’s drug, alcohol and mental health accountability court since 2012.
Other action going before the commission Tuesday:
l A $2.5 million “bridge loan” requested by Augusta Housing and Community Development to continue consultant-assisted revitalization of the Laney-Walker and Bethlehem neighborhoods until the city is eligible in 2015 to issue more bonds backed by the project’s $750,000 annual stream of hotel bed fees.
l An ordinance moving the time of commission meetings from 5 p.m. to 2 p.m.